What, precisely, is this book? My copy is a galley; the front cover and the title page say “Self-Portrait Abroad, a novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint”; on the cover, the category tags it as “fiction”. The info sheet tucked inside this copy says that in the book “our narrator – a Belgian author much like Toussaint himself – travels the globe”. The Library of Congress headings on the copyright page don’t suggest that it’s fiction, rather tagging it travel. To the reader, it doesn’t feel like a novel: this is a small book, a collection of short travel pieces that might have appeared separately in a newspaper, as I thought I heard Toussaint indicate last Friday in his appearance at BookCourt. Were one coming at this book as a tabula rasa, one would probably not tag it a novel.
This book might be thought of as falling between genres in tradition of Butor: his Mobile, while formally much more experimental, takes the same approach to travel. At the end of that book, the reader has an idea of Butor’s sensibility, what interests him; but a sense of Butor as a traveler is entirely lacking, and one wonders whether Butor actually took the trip laid out in the book. Toussaint’s approach is more personal (a bit more like Butor’s later, and more stylistically restrained, The Spirit of Mediterranean Places), but there is the same vagueness: if this is memoir, it’s considerably oblique one. It’s certainly not trying to be travel writing, as that’s usually understood: one can’t learn very much about places from this book. (“Seen from above, at four thousand feet,” the narrator writes in the first paragraph of “Tokyo,” “there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.”) Rather, as the title suggests, we learn about the narrator.
The narrator sees not where he is, but where he’s from. On his arrival in Tokyo, a Corsican friend insists on filling him in on what happened there; he is “perfectly indifferent to the surrounding atmosphere,” an indifference that the narrator seems to share: “Although it was pastis time,” the narrator notes, “we contented ourselves with green tea.” The section named “Hobg Kong” describes that city from a bench in its airport and, most notably, from the airplane prior to arriving in the city. The subjectivity of the narrator is paramount:
The silent cabin of my sleepy seven-forty-seven was still convinced of its being night, however, as it flew in perfect stillness toward Tokyo to the hushed drowning of its motors, my watch showing one o’clock in the morning, the other passengers dozing around me in the feeble light, the small plastic blinds on the window carefully lowered, to say nothing of my own fatigue after seven or eight hours of flight, my eyes heavy and closing softly, yes, everything seemed to indicate that it was night – apart from one important detail: it was now broad daylight outside. (p. 13)
There’s an accuracy to this depiction: while a clock declares one time, the passengers understand it to be something else entirely, just as the airplane only appears to be still to those inside with windows closed, so the relative motion of the rest of the world can’t be noticed. The passengers arrive in a city still in the grips of this disjunction, in no state to understand anything. The airport becomes a dreamscape, and we understand the behavior of the narrator earlier in the piece; the airport is anything but an interesting place, but it seems impossible to traverse. One wonders what the great novels of airports are; Brian Eno’s Music for Airports gets at this feeling with its etherial, possibly inhuman, choirs.
One thinks back past Butor to another French traveler, Raymond Roussel, who traveled all over Africa in his specially designed motorhome and famously didn’t bother to look out the window. This is the conspicuous consumption of the idle rich; but Roussel also realized that enough narrative to fill any number of books could be found in anything – the label on a bottle of water, for example – and that the act of looking could be more important that what you actually looked at. (Dalí tried to run with this in his film Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage à Raymond Roussel – skip to about forty minutes into the bloated film for the big reveal, that the seemingly abstract landscapes of the second half of the film were in fact generated by zooming in on the the ferrule of a pen that Dalí urinated on with an electron microscope.) Robbe-Grillet is also in the background, of course: a number of his novels are set overseas, but one forgets this because Robbe-Grillet is never that interested in his setting: Project for a Revolution in New York could have happened anywhere; a more direct antecedent to Toussaint’s novel, La maison de rendez-vous, another of the later, kind of terrible Robbe-Grillet book, is as inconsequentially set in Hong Kong, taking only chinoiserie from its location.
This is a slight book, tracing out an itinerary across Asia and Europe, dropping south to Sfax, the town in Tunisia that Georges Perec described in Les choses; Japan has the most pages devoted to it, but it’s difficult to work out whether multiple trips are being described or the same trip split into moments. Time is a focus: the individual pieces go back and forth in time. In the last piece in the book, the narrator describes returning to Kyoto (a previous piece has indeed been about Kyoto) and trying to be overcome by emotions; he is not, though the setting is right, and he describes a desolate landscape as straightforwardly as he does in the book. The ending is uncharacteristically emotional, and suggests that the jumps back and forth in time are not verbal acrobatics but an attempt at something else:
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a place I’d frequented in the past disappear in this way, the transformation of a location I’d known, but seeing this desolate spectacle, this abandoned station out of bounds behind iron bars, this deserted station with its disused platforms, whose tracks had become a craggy rain-soaked wasteland and whose main hall with its ticketing machines was now a junkyard where a rickety turnstile lay askew in the mud, I realized that time had passed since I’d left Kyoto. And if this affected me so deeply on that day, it was not only because my senses, numbed by the prevailing grayness and the alcohol in my blood, naturally put me in a melancholic frame of mind, it was also because I suddenly felt sad and powerless at this brusque testimony to the passage of time. It was hardly the result of conscious reasoning, but rather the concrete and painful, fleeting and physical feeling that I myself was part and parcel of time and its passing. Until then, the feeling of being carreid along by time had always been attenuated by the fact that I wrote – until then, in a way, writing had been a means of resisting the current that bore me along, a way of inscribing myself in time, of setting landmarks in the immateriality of its flow, incisions, scratches. (pp. 83–84.)
The echoes of Proust (and perhaps Leiris) here might be unexpected: the reader is sent back to read the book again, to make sense of this record again.